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A tale of three cities

Three cities are winning the race in connected transportation; here’s how others can catch up, by Barry Einsing

One of the cornerstones of any smart city is a smart transportation infrastructure
One of the cornerstones of any smart city is a smart transportation infrastructure

It’s no secret that the concept of smart cities is on the rise globally. Most governments today understand that digital transformation has become essential to citizen happiness, safety and financial stability.


One of the cornerstones of any smart city is a smart transportation infrastructure. Through greater digitisation and connectivity of their transportation systems, cities can have faster, more efficient traffic management, timelier infrastructure repairs, improved traffic flow and road safety, and even reduce CO2 emissions. However, as with any new wave of technology adoption, some cities are farther ahead than others.


Cities that are already succeeding in digital transformation have found innovative new ways to make their transportation networks faster and safer. For example, New York City is connecting the first 400 of its more than 12,000 traffic lights to the Internet of Things (IoT) as well as 8,000 vehicles of all types from taxis, freight vehicles, and MTA buses. This then broadcasts real-time signal, phase, and timing (SPatT) information from the traffic lights to and from connected vehicles that are nearby. Additionally, with communication networks in MTA buses, the city aims to prioritise traffic flows, preempt traffic signals for faster emergency response and provide real-time information on the availability of bus service.


A similar connected transportation programme was recently launched in Las Vegas. The new programme is specifically designed to alleviate congestion caused by commuters, tourism and special events. Using connected and IoT-enabled traffic lights, video cameras and data analytics, all tied to a common, converged network, the city will be able to reroute vehicles, improve the efficiency of traffic lights and increase public safety. For example, with traditionally timed traffic signals, a car may be stuck at a red light in the middle of the night despite being the only vehicle at the intersection. With the new smart transportation initiative, the adaptive traffic signal can leverage the sensors, Vehicle to Infrastructure (V2I) communications, cameras and data analytics to see that it’s the only vehicle in any direction, and change the timing of the light. The same traffic analytic cameras and sensors, can be used to look at an intersection and see if someone who needs extra time getting across the roadway is in danger, enabling city officials to be more proactive concerning potential safety risks rather than reactionary.


In Tampa, Florida, the government has initiated a pilot programme that takes this level of data collection and connectivity even further. The pilot will employ Dedicated Short Range Communication (DSRC) technology to enable communication between approximately 1,600 cars, ten buses, ten trolleys, five hundred pedestrians with smartphone applications, and approximately forty roadside units along city streets. This detailed level of communications between all transportation infrastructure in the city will help to prioritise traffic flows, get emergency vehicles to incidents faster, improve roadway safety and much more.


While the pilot programmes in New York City, Las Vegas and Tampa are just at their outset, some other cities and states have already experienced incredible benefits from connected transportation programmes. For example, in Alaska, the remote Elliott and Dalton highways are often buried under ice and snow, making it difficult for emergency vehicles and road crews to use them. The Alaska Department of Transportation was able to implement Internet communication and network connectivity along these remote stretches of road with highly secure data, voice and video applications and an IP-based dispatch and incident response system. The system has enabled faster and remote reporting of accidents to local authorities, and in one specific case, saved numerous lives. State authorities could identify a truck fire in the remote town of Deadhorse, Alaska from forty miles away and sent a rescue team immediately. Without the connected transportation infrastructure, this process would have normally taken hours and lives would have been lost.


These examples of direct integration of new technologies within a city’s existing transportation infrastructure are precisely what will take all U.S. cities into a safer and more efficient future. Fortunately, there are a few key lessons that all cities looking to embark on the journey to digital transformation can learn from.



Lesson 1: Identify your city’s unique problems first


Every city, state and region faces its own unique set of problems. Alaska, which has fully embraced roadway digitisation, clearly has its own unique set of problems associated with remote landscapes and extreme weather conditions. Therefore, no singular approach to connected transportation is universal. For example, it’s widely understood that cities such as Los Angeles, Austin, and Atlanta have world-famous traffic congestion. In fact, LA topped the list for the worst traffic-congested city in the U.S. this year. Rapid growth and spread of city populations without corresponding roadway restructurings has created terrible commute times on major highways in these areas. With IoT integration, these cities can use smart sensors on roadways to reduce congestion and aid in clearing traffic jams faster and, eventually, prevent them before they ever happen.


Many U.S. cities, struggle with crime far more than they struggle with traffic congestion. Therefore, applications of smart sensors in street cameras and street lights would be far better suited to their needs. Any city that embarks on digital transformation should be setting goals that address their unique, local complications.


Lesson 2: Accept that failure is possible, because the rewards outweigh the risks


The number one roadblock to digital transformation in local governments is fear of failure, but many common fears are simply grounded in a lack of understanding. New technologies developed for smart transportation are specifically designed, tested, and validated with a safety-first mentality. These safety-first processes include design documentation, implementation guides, and best practice sharing from other governments with a similar problem set.


As with any new technology, being among the first adopters can be a scary concept, but the benefits of connected transportation technologies greatly outweigh the challenges they carry. The only thing that cities should fear is that lack of action due to concern itself may stand in the way between them and improving the safety, mobility, efficiency, livability, and productivity of their city, region, or national government.


Lesson 3: Focus on broad scale deployment


A common mistake made among cities looking to implement a smart transportation initiative is placing sole, significant focus on self-driving or autonomous vehicle deployment. The challenge with this approach is that adoption of personal vehicles is not completely in the hands of government, even if they try to encourage adoption. Consumers will do what they want to do. Instead, local governments need to focus initial digitisation efforts on integrating IoT-enabled devices into existing municipal vehicles of all kinds including public safety vehicles, maintenance and repair, and public and mass transportation vehicles. Additionally, they will benefit from building one multi-service common, converged, secure IP infrastructure to enable these vehicles in the municipality to maximise safety, mobility, charging, and sharing.


The future of connected transportation has only just begun to show its possibilities, but every city, state and region must find its own path to success. As soon as local governments can mitigate fears, and embrace the broad benefits of connected transportation, we will witness the greatest societal and economic shift since we first applied steam to transportation globally.



Barry Einsing is global automotive and transportation executive, Cisco



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